Autumn of Discontent: A season of protests, violent suppression, and Internet censorship

Lebanon: “All of them, means all of them!”

Mass protests swept across Lebanon last month as citizens took to the streets to demand substantive political change. Dubbed the “tax intifada” or the “WhatsApp” revolution”, the demonstrations were fuelled largely by a worsening economic situation, the government’s ineptness in dealing with a recent wave of wildfires, and finally triggered by a proposed tax on calls made through WhatsApp and other voice-over-internet protocol apps.

As groups of protesters gathered in Beirut on the night of 17 October in a rejection of the proposed tax, demonstrations quickly gained momentum as Lebanese mobilized in a mission to purge the governing landscape of corruption. In the wake of the backlash, the government ultimately scrapped the WhatsApp tax and rushed to quell the anger by introducing an emergency reform package. However, the Lebanese had apparently had enough of the status quo, taking up chants of “All of them, means all of them!” as nationwide demonstrations brought the entire country to a standstill.

Nearly ten days later, Prime Minister Saad Hariri submitted his resignation, but leaving many to wonder who will now fill the political vacuum, and whether a looming economic collapse can be averted.

Although images of the protests projected a mostly harmonious assembly of citizens, including music and dancing, a human chain across the country, and even an impromptu rendition of “baby shark” – demonstrators were also subject to multiple attacks by authorities from the onset. In a brazen disregard for freedom of expression and assembly protections in the Lebanese constitution, dozens were arrested as security forces were documented firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

IFEX members Social Media Exchange (SMEX) took on a proactive role throughout the demonstrations, including publishing a guide for protesters to communicate securely using encrypted messaging apps, establishing a digital security helpline for citizens experiencing suspicious activity on their accounts, as well as mobilizing efforts to ensure telecoms increased Internet capacity in key locations.

Meanwhile, IFEX member Maharat Foundation collaborated with Data Aurora to launch “Lebanon Protests” – an independent, interactive platform that aggregates data, statistics, and social media discussions around the protests, as well as documents the demands of the people.

Iraq rages on

Anti-government protests have also dominated the landscape in Iraq last month, with similar economic woes and calls to end political corruption expressed by demonstrators. In the past several weeks, security forces used heavy-handed tactics to repress protests, including live ammunition, stun grenades, snipers on building tops, as well as arbitrary arrests, Internet blocking, and imposed curfews. Meanwhile, journalists and media channels were also targeted, with gunmen storming at least three TV stations, including the Saudi-funded station Al-Arabiya, and the Baghdad offices of privately owned Dijlah TV, and the Iraqi-Kurdish TV channel NRT.

“It is no longer just attacks on media crews in the field,” said Sabrina Bennoui, head of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) middle east desk. “Now the headquarters of media outlets are being attacked, preventing them from reporting what is happening in Iraq.”

According to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, protests have claimed the lives of at least 100 people, with over 4,000 wounded and 800 arrested. Despite government assurances that senior security officials would be held accountable over the deadly response and that extreme violence would not be repeated, repressive tactics resumed with security forces relying heavily on the use of rubber bullets and tear gas.

“The government’s misleading assurances that the public wouldn’t again face terrible violence probably encouraged some to believe they would be safe to demonstrate peacefully,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Rights groups have called on Iraqi authorities to investigate protester deaths and uphold the right to freedom of expression and assembly, as well as securing the release of activists and human rights defenders who were abducted and forcibly disappeared by unknown militias.

Internet in the crosshairs

Iraqi authorities also carried out an active Internet shutdown starting 2 October, blocking Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. Internet mapping organization Netblocks documented and analyzed the outages, highlighting a “systematic nighttime curfew,” while Iraqi lawyer Mohammed Joumaa filed a lawsuit against the ministry of telecommunications, in an effort to hold the minister directly accountable.

In a collaborative effort, the Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM) worked with SMEX to launch a petition calling for an end to network disruptions, stating: “the internet shutdown…inhibits free expression and allows government forces to commit human rights violations without evidence or recordings against them.” As of this writing, the petition has garnered over 18,000 signatories, as of this writing.

Internet connectivity in Iraq, October 2019. Source: Netblocks.org

Egypt: the clampdown continues

In Egypt, the ripple effect from September’s protests has continued to unfold, as activists, human rights defenders, and journalists faced severe repercussions for their activity.

Prominent activist and Al-Tahrir journalist, Esraa Abdel-Fattah, remains in custody after being abducted by security forces on 12 October and reportedly tortured for her cell phone’s password. “Abdel Fattah should never have been arrested, let alone subject to the horrific treatment her lawyers say she has received in custody,” said Sherif Mansour, MENA Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Human rights defender, Maheinour El-Massry continues to be detained since her arrest on 22 September, along with bloggers Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Mohamed “Oxygen” who also remain in custody. Recently freed photojournalist Mahmoud Shawkan continues to spend every night in Al-Ahram prison as a condition of his release, while activist lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer – also arrested in September when attending the interrogation of his client Alaa Abdel Fattah – continues to languish in custody at Tora prison. Both Alaa and El-Baqer were seen carrying political prisoner Gehad el-Haddad into a courtroom last month after the former Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson (who has spent most of the past six years enduring torture and solitary confinement) lost his ability to walk.

IFEX condemned continued attacks on its network members in Egypt, including Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) who was violently accosted in the street, and ANHRI lawyer Amr Emam who was kidnapped and arrested six days later. Moreover, incitements to murder Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), have yet to be investigated, and recent lawsuit has sought to strip him of his Egyptian citizenship.

Ahead of Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on 13 November, a recent joint report by rights organisations detailed the widespread and systematic use of torture and the impunity its perpetrators are granted. According to the report, torture is: “no longer a crime falling under individual culpability, but rather, it has become a state policy with the objective of deterring – by instilling fear – citizens’ participation in the public sphere.”

In brief

In Palestine, a Ramallah magistrate court ordered the blocking of 52 websites and Facebook pages, including 25 news sites. Yet, censorship extends beyond the courts as new research from The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh) showed that two-thirds of Palestinian youth are afraid to express their political opinions online. According to the research, many young Palestinians have had their content removed from online platforms, experienced harassment, or were interrogated in relation to what they posted on social networks.

In Tunisia, the 2019 presidential and legislative elections throughout September and October witnessed a significant spread of disinformation, including social media rumors and falsified exit polling data, in an effort to disrupt the process. While Tunisian authorities have traditionally dealt with online disinformation by leveraging a string of laws to prosecute citizens for their online commentary, Human Rights Watch have pointed out the unconstitutionality of these laws, and called on the new parliament to establish a constitutional court with the power to eliminate laws criminalizing peaceful speech.

In Algeria, ongoing hirak protests continued to be met with violent suppression. Last month, police forces used riot gear and batons to beat demonstrators, while authorities have continued to block social media accounts, websites, and media.

In Iran, an appeals court confirmed sentences for four journalists ranging from one to 23 years, including self-exiled satirist, Kiomars Marzban. Marzban was arrested in July 2018 after returning to Iran to visit his ailing mother. Meanwhile, Ali Alinejad, brother of prominent Iranian human rights defender and feminist voice Masih Alinejad, remains in jail. He was arrested after posting a video describing the harassment and pressure their family received to publicly denounce Masih, who has been the propelling force behind #whitewednesday – an ongoing campaign against forced hijab.

In the UAE, human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor resumed a second hunger strike after being beaten for protesting his conditions in Al-Sader prison. While it remains unknown whether Mansoor ended his strike, IFEX and 142 rights organizations across the globe published a letter calling for his immediate release.

Lastly, October saw the first year anniversary since the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi authorities. IFEX and 19 organizations renewed their demands for justice, calling for the perpetrators to be identified and subject to a fair trial.

“While one year must feel like a lifetime to Khashoggi’s family and friends, in human justice time and the search for truth it is very brief. Thus we should not lose sight of what we are trying to achieve; we should not lose hope and courage that justice can be attained,” said UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Dr Agnes Callamard during a side event at the 42nd Human Rights Council session in September.

Looking forward

5 November: 7amleh is organizing the first Digital Security Education Conference at Birzeit University, which aims to cover issues including, gender-based violence online, organisational digital security and social media strategies.

19 November: SMEX will be hosting the second (and very timely) “Bread and Net” unconference in Beirut, bringing together activists to tackle a range of themes focused on digital security and advocacy issues.

The post Autumn of Discontent: A season of protests, violent suppression, and Internet censorship appeared first on IFEX.

Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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